Feature Article - March 2021
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Want to Play?

The Latest Playground Trends Get Everyone Moving

By Joe Bush

A leading recreational equipment company recently shared its top five playground industry trends for 2021. Two of the five trends are responses to needs and mandates that have grown from the COVID-19 pandemic—outdoor learning and outdoor fitness. The other three are continuations of the world before the virus changed daily life—inclusivity, increased use of rope structures, and what the company calls "human powered play."

"There is a growing interest in providing electronic, interactive play without the need for replaceable batteries," said the press release announcing the five trends. "More than 15 billion expired batteries end up in landfills around the world each year. The answer to this environmental issue is human-powered electronics."

To power sensory-rich experiences like lights and music, storytelling or social games, playground users turn a handle, repeatedly press a foot pedal or rotate a wheel. The results are environmentally sustainable and lower maintenance costs.

The playground industry's focus on sustainability—from manufacturing to materials to experiences like human powered play—is similar to the concurrent attention in the 21st century to enabling people of all ages and abilities to use playgrounds. This push for inclusion goes far beyond the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990.

"Making sure the playground is accessible is now table stakes," said Kent Callison, director of marketing for a playground equipment firm. "Forty years ago it just didn't happen unless it was a very specialized environment. Now it's just what you do.

"What we're going to see more of is that people are truly interested in true inclusion. Not just being sure everyone is in the same space but making sure they're all able to interact with one another and the environment in a way that benefits everyone altogether at the same time."

Callison said the inclusion movement has progressed from education to expectation; clients now ask for as much inclusion as possible. His company tries to stay on the cutting edge on inclusive design through its research partnership with the Center for Persons with Disabilities at Utah State University.

"Inclusion will continue to be a trend, where companies and the industry as a whole will

continue to innovate to make sure that we're not just keeping up with the need but we're anticipating what the next need will be," said Callison.

One of Callison's company's claims to inclusive fame is a swing with an adjustable seat for the child that faces a bench seat for a parent or caregiver, allowing for a face-to-face experience that deepens emotional bonds during fun.

Callison said the improvement that turned the initial swing into the universal model was the adjustable seat custom-made for a Make A Wish participant. The custom-made upgrade grew from discussions with the child's parents and worked so well it has become one of the company's best-selling products.

"I'm constantly amazed by the innovation that comes just from listening to people who are going to use the products," said Callison. "Once we had this custom piece, we found out from other families they wanted the same kind of experience."

In addition to such swings, playgrounds have areas specifically for people with sensory challenges. One company's blog includes a 2015 post listing 10 features that welcome and raise the experience of people with autism:

  • A walking path offers a chance to scout the playground, helping ease the child into what can be an intimidating environment.
  • Nature areas provide sensory stimulation like sand and the soothing sound of running water.
  • Loose building materials made from wood, plastic and styrofoam allow children to quietly focus on creativity.
  • Opportunities for both passive—like being pushed on swings—and independent movement.
  • Hiding spaces for when and if the child feels overwhelmed.
  • Pressure sensory elements like slides that use rollers for children who are soothed by physical pressure.
  • Play structures that encourage interaction with others since many playground sensory activities are focused on the individual.
  • Natural beiges and wood colors are less likely than bright colors to alarm a child with autism.
  • A nearby greenspace for activity when/if the structure environment becomes too much.
  • A nearby dog park can provide the comfort that some children get from interaction with animals.

Not to be overlooked under the umbrella of inclusivity is a welcoming and usable play area for all ages. Sarah Lisiecki, a marketing, communications and education specialist for a playground equipment company, said intergenerational areas are trending.

"Bringing people of all ages and abilities together in the same space to engage in exercise, musical exploration and play is a great way to foster healthy habits and community relationships," said Lisiecki.

Obstacle courses are an example of two trends: intergenerational play and outdoor fitness. A more challenging course invites parents to participate for competition or just enjoyment. Lisiecki said such courses offer more than a different kind of activity.

"A fun workout where parents and children or grandchildren, sports teams and community organizations can work out together at different levels and in a fun, engaging environment," she said. "This helps build community pride and camaraderie from people of all ages. With obesity rates rising in all age groups, public exercise spaces can help combat this trend."